Sunday, August 31, 2003

The Naked Truth

I try my hardest in this column to find those laugh-out-loud “only-in-Israel” stories. But since we’ve been out of the country and on vacation this last month, I’ve picked up a few “only-in-California” stories.

Here’s one of them.

We had just collected the kids from Camp Jaycee, the Jewish Community Center Day Camp in La Jolla not far from where we’ve been staying with Jody’s dad. We were looking for something different to do with the afternoon.

Not far away is this amazing cliff where hang-gliders take off and sail over the Pacific Ocean. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping, and we thought the kids would get a kick out of it.

But when we got to the jumping off spot, there was nary a hang glider in sight.

“No wind,” the snack bar guy said, pointing at the sky, causing the tattoos on his chest to animate like an X-rated Disney cartoon.

Then Jody spied a path. It went down all the way to the beach below.

“Who’s up for an adventure!” she announced. The kids readily took the bait. Who can resist a challenge like that? Though as I viewed the coming descent, I was already thinking about the climb back up. To my untrained eyes, it appeared we were at a height no less than that of Masada, with a path that snaked just as sharply.

But it was a beautiful sunny Southern California day, and the reward was a beach full of warm water, surf boards and surprises.

Did I mention surprises?

About three-quarters of the way down Masada, California, nine-year-old Merav made an interesting comment.

“Why is that man wearing a skin-colored bathing suit?”

Maybe her new glasses were playing tricks.

A minute later, five-year-old Aviv announced in a loud voice: “Look Imma – he’s naked. And he’s naked too. They’re both naked!”

In fact, there was quite a lot of nakedness going on below: we had inadvertently arrived at a well known (except to us) clothing-optional beach. With a whole range of family fun taking place: nude swimming, nude volleyball, even nude boogie-boarding (ow, that’s gotta hurt).

Normally, this is not the sort of place we proactively take our kids. We’re not prudes by any means, but we have a healthy sense of Biblically-inspired modesty. And the men (and for some reason they were all men) were walking around the beach flaunting their nakedness.

Couldn’t they just sit quietly under a nice beach umbrella? At least until we left?

However, we had just made a pretty serious hiking commitment and the peaks of our Masada loomed large behind us. Aviv had already run ahead. No, there was no turning back now.

As we got closer, it became apparent that not everyone was naked. It was a mixed congregation of sorts. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, all together in the same space. A real melting pot.

And truth be told, from a vacationing Israeli perspective, there was an appealing, even liberating element to all the nakedness around us. There was no chance anyone could be hiding an explosives belt under his bathing suit.

Speaking of which…

As we reached the bottom of the trail, little Aviv began to whine.

“Imma, I forgot my bathing suit!”

Merav was still wearing hers under her shorts after her day at camp. But Aviv had already changed into long pants and a t-shirt.

“Aviv, why don’t you go in naked,” I suggested. “Everyone else is.”

When in Rome…

He looked around and cautiously began removing his clothes. Like I said, this is not standard operating procedure in Jerusalem. Then, before we knew it, the kids were frolicking in the waves, jumping, splashing, having a jolly old time.

Yes, exactly as we had planned.

That’s when Jody spied them.

“Look, look!” she began to yell, gesticulating wildly and pointing into the sea. “Look!

A naked man not far from where we were standing must have assumed Jody was pointing at him and turned uncharacteristically self-conscious.

“Dolphins!” Jody clarified.

The kids whirled around just in time to see several beautiful gray-black bottle-nosed dolphins jumping up and out of the water over the cresting waves. It was a magnificent sight. Totally unexpected.

At that very moment, I guess the wind must have whipped up again, because a hang glider suddenly appeared in the air. There above us was a man, sailing as freely and unencumbered by worldly concerns as the beachcombers frolicking around us or the dolphins playing in the surf.

He was not naked, by the way.

And I thought to myself: only in California. Only in California…

Bonus Story
I have another story about the beach I thought I'd share with you. It's called "Boogie Brian" and it's all about our family's first boogie boarding experience. But it has absolutely nothing to do with normal life in Israel. So I thought I'd try an experiment to see how many of my readers are willing and able to click web links.

If you'd like to read the story, click this link:

Boogie Brian

Or paste the following web address into your browser:

Once you finish the story, please click the link at the end to send me an email so that I know you were there. Thanks for participating...and enjoy the article!

Saturday, August 23, 2003

It's a Wand-erful Life

I used to fly a lot. In the last few years, though, my traveling schedule has become greatly reduced. And since 9/11, I've only been to North America once.

So when we were flagged at the San Francisco Airport at the beginning of our summer vacation for what is euphemistically called "Secondary Searching," I was mildly amused. A new post-9/11 experience. A chance to compliment the hard-working TSA employees for their due diligence.

But hey guys, leave my kids out of it, OK?

My crash course in airport security revealed that there are two types of screening. "Regular" involves the x-ray, of course, and maybe a bit of discrete wanding. In addition, every adult these days has to remove his or her shoes, at least at the airports I visited.

"Secondary" screening is for highly suspicious the Blum family. And as I said, even our kids had to remove their sandals before we were escorted to a cordoned off area where our bags were opened and we were thoroughly wanded.

My belt rang. Off with the belt.

Then I was patted down.

Watch it there buddy...

Still, I was having fun with the new experience and all. I felt like Alice in Wand-erland, where everything was laden with double entendres.

But when I looked over at Jody, she was scowling.

Maybe it was the fact she had to stand, legs spread, hands out at her side at a 90-degree angle while she was searched in full view of the revelers at the adjacent Gordon Biersch brewpub. Maybe it was because our kids were getting grilled too.

As we finally cleared security, Jody muttered "Why can't they do it like they do in Israel?"

Ah yes, why not indeed? Israeli security is world renowned for not only its thoroughness, but its expertise in singling out the most dangerous types and letting everyone else pass relatively unmaimed.

Indeed, the most pressing question many of my frequent flying English speaking compatriots would get would come from a perky security guard who'd ask "Do you speak Hebrew?" When we'd reply "No," the invariable follow up question would be "Why not?" (credit for pointing that one out goes to Jewish comedian Wayne Federman).

But for those selected for further security, the questioning in Israel can make the stateside TSA guys look like slobbering puppy dogs.

The grilling could be so off-putting to visiting businessmen that a number of the top hi-tech companies in Israel got together and instituted a system where they'd send a letter directly to the head of Israeli security at Ben Gurion alerting them to the fact that Mr. So and So was really truly a guest and was not to be treated like a potential terrorist.

The argument used against the Israeli style of selection is that it's not fair or impartial. That it discriminates based on ethnicity, generalizations and stereotypes. True, but what's better? Putting everyone through the shoes-off wands-at-the-ready routine? Interrogating a five-year-old in a Barney t-shirt?

Somehow, the Israeli method of selection seems a hundred times more efficient even if entirely politically incorrect and antithetical to the entire contemporary American ethos of impartiality.

As an Israeli who passes easily through security at Ben Gurion, I've argued in the past for selection over random checks. But that was until I learned that our being singled out may not have been so random after all.

"You can get flagged for any number of reasons," the somewhat bored Transportation Security Authority employee explained in response to my question Why us? "An expired driver's license, a one way ticket, a ticket purchased overseas."


We were flying one way from my parents in San Francisco to Burbank where Jody's mom lives. On a ticket bought in the Middle East.

On this trip, it seems, we suffered what less-passable types do in Israel. Because we most decidedly did not fit the profile of the average American.

The shoe was now on the other foot.

But for all my annoyance at U.S. airport security, that was nothing compared to what we experienced later during the summer while vacationing at the Universal Studios amusement park.

When the burly security guard demanded we open our bags, I was at first delighted. Finally, an acknowledgement of real world vulnerability in a post-9/11 world.

Until I realized what he was looking for.

"You can't take this inside," he said, pointing to our tuna sandwiches and bags of chips.

"But that's our lunch. Our kosher lunch."

But he had his orders. "No food allowed in the park."

After several back and forth exchanges, we were asked to step aside and there we stood, in front of all the other park guests, being grilled by "secondary security" all over again.

Eventually an assistant manger arrived and begn dividing our food into two piles.

Another selection.

We got to keep the sandwiches but the guard kept the chips and the granola bars.

At least they didn't make us take our shoes off this time.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Reverse Culture Shock

When I first heard the expression “culture shock” many years ago, it was in reference to what friends told me I could expect on my first visit to Israel after never before having been out of the continental United States.

Lately, though, it's culture shock in reverse: the experience now seems more applicable to my return visits to the U.S. And right now, on an extended summer sojourn in the States, I feel like a fish without a country: an expatriate who's come back to visit the homeland...and doesn't recognize a thing.

Oh, the institutions I grew up with are pretty much the same, and I can handle the natural evolution of automotive design and regional architecture.

But hey, what’s up with the sex?

I mean, was it always so pervasive? OK, we watch reruns of Friends on cable in Israel just like our bretheren "back home." And we get the same movies, so it’s not like I live some kind of super sheltered life. But nothing quite prepared me for the head-on confrontation, the in-your-face essence of sex, Southern California-style, 2003.

What am I talking about?

Exhibit A: the first night we were in the States, I turned on CNN and heard a report about something called Nude Paintball. You know what paintball is, right? It’s where individuals or teams chase each other with rifles that shoot paint rather than bullets. There are already a half a dozen paintball facilities in Israel.

Well, apparently, some guy in Las Vegas is now charging men up to $10,000 to chase down naked women in a forest outside of Vegas. The women receive $2,000 to participate, $2,500 if they evade capture. You can read all about it on the guy's website: Hunting for Bambi.

There were subsequent rumors that the whole thing was a hoax to sell adult videos, but still…

Next up, my wife Jody bought a copy of her favorite magazine: Oprah. Now mind you, this is not Playboy, Penthouse, or even People. She buys it for the insights not the celebrities. But what does she read not less than five minutes after opening it up but a story about the latest trend in aerobics: the strip tease workout.

According to the Oprah flash, women are now flocking to get their daily exercise learning the bump and grind techniques of the strip club.

In case that wasn't evocative enough, let me get a bit more graphic: not content with just doing stretches and squats, women in these classses are simulating lap dances and hanging from polls while literally taking it off (the classes are for women only, though I’m sure some guy from Las Vegas will figure out a way to charge men $10K to peek).

OK, maybe these two stories were more aberration than mainstream. But how then to explain the page after page of plastic surgery ads screaming out at me from the LA Weekly, an entertainment magazine I innocently picked up to find the closest show times for Disney's new animated flick “Finding Nemo.”

I now know, through just casual observation, that the price for a no-scar “breast augmentation” miraculously performed via the belly button (huh?) or armpit (ouch!) can be had for a mere $2,999.

Breast lifts and tummy tucks are more pricey at $3,999 while a new nose comes snorting somewhere down the middle at a mere $3,499.

There’s liposuction at $849, lip augmentation for $999, maximum strength botox (why would anyone get the minimum strength?) at $99 per area (but watch out for the small print - there's a two area minimum) and a wide variety of laser hair removal (including male chest hair for $249).

And can anyone tell me what the heck is vaginal rejuvenation?

On TV I can't seem to find anything other than these new fangled reality/dating shows. They're on one after another on every network, with names like Who Wants to Marry My Dad and ElimiDate. The raunch factor has been ratcheted up so high audiences will bolt if the couple doesn't sleep with each other before the show's 22 minutes are up.

Whatever happened to the innocent double entrendres of 1970's The Dating Game with Jim Lang, my generation's guilty pleasure?

Now don't get me wrong: I love America and the vast majority of our summer vacations here reminds me of all the positive values the U.S. stands for. It's always a blast (and often a relief) to visit the old stomping grounds where so much is still familiar. And to be fair, it’s entirely possible that the same stuff – and more – is going on in Israel as well.

It’s just that I don’t hear about it so much.

Part of it is the Hebrew – I can much more easily zone out through a commercial not in my native tongue.

Part of it is the more modest nature of Jerusalem – city bylaws actually forbid oversized billboards; I wouldn’t be surprised if things were more LA-like in Tel Aviv.

Part of it, too, is the fact that there is simply less media space in Israel. We have a hundred channels of digital cable…but not a thousand. And we only have two official commercial television stations which seem more interested in deploying oversized tongues to tantalize me into buying more yogurt than to pitch me on how to increase my….well, I get enough of those by email.

However, innocence has its price. The other day I found myself singing along to a catchy jingle on the radio. It sounded like a perfume or facial ointment. For some reason, I had the presence of mind to ask a Hebrew speaking friend exactly what this product was.

Apparently, “Clinica-On” is a medical facility that specializes in treating sexual dysfunction.

Next thing you know, I’ll be lazing in the park, happily humming a little ditty that, unbeknownst to me, is actually an ode to bigger better botox.

Extra strength, of course.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Tisha B'Av, 2003

We are standing in the center of a long, dimly-lit hall. On either side of us, hundreds of name plaques are stacked, one after other, seven rows high. A few chairs are scattered about. A cleaning person glides silently with a broom.

This is where Marla is buried. The Cypress View Mausoleum. Located on the outskirts of San Diego.

It’s Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s been just over a year since Marla's funeral and her burial here. The choice of this date to visit seems somehow fitting.

Jody and I have come with Marla's mother, Linda. Her father, Michael, doesn’t visit often.

“Marla’s not there anyway,” he offers, more as explanation than excuse.

If you stand at the far end of the mausoleum, by the doors that open into the empty parking lot, the hallway looks deceptively like two very tall train cars with a series of endless doors, ready to open and close, open and close, to the sound of the conductor’s whistle.

Except of course that they do so just once, to the tune of a very different wail.

Walk straight through to the opposite end of the imposing space and you leave the small Jewish section. There is more light here, streaming through several large ornate stained glass windows; naked Greek statues adorn these hallways.

No matter which section you’re in, the mausoleum is pristine, fastidiously clean. As it should be, I suppose.

Except for one spot.

At first it appears a few scraps of trash have been left on the polished floor, missed by the cleaning person that day. There’s a newspaper clipping. A photograph. A rock.

This is where Marla lies. Marked by the only name plaque with both Hebrew and English on it. Miriam Chanah Bat Moshe v’Yaffa. Marla Ann Bennett. 1978-2002.

And the trash isn't that at all. The yellowing newspaper clipping is a summary of Marla’s life from the Israeli paper Maariv; the rock is attached to a note certifying that it was brought from Kibbutz Bet HaShita in Israel. These tributes have been here for months, Linda explains. She doesn’t know who left them. Inexplicably, they remain.

Cobwebs have formed.

As I stand looking at the crypt where Marla lies, looking at the rock, holding both Linda and Jody’s hands, my stomach growls. I try to silence it, but my parched throat reminds me of what day it is.

And reminds me, too, that today has never been easy for me. But not for the reasons you might think.

I’ve always had trouble relating to Tisha B’Av. Oh I know the ostensible explanations for why we refrain from eating and drinking, from wearing leather shoes or showing any sign of affection or greeting.

But that history - the Romans, The Temple, Jerusalem – it all seems so long ago. So far from our modern experience. And I live only a stone’s throw from the very Temple we’re supposed to be mourning. Israel is now a sovereign state with a strong army, a rich and varied culture.

More than that, though, I am frustrated at how Tisha B’Av has been transformed into a catch-all day to commemorate everything bad that’s ever happened to the Jews. It’s just too all-encompassing, too non-specific. The impact of the main event has been diluted.

It’s not just the day that one Temple was destroyed, but both the first and second Temples.

And the day that Betar, the last fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in the year 135, fell.

And the day the spies gave their damning report on the land of Canaan to Moses and the Israelites in the desert.

And the day that World War I started.

Frankly, it seems like a stretch. Dayenu already.

Now, all that has changed.

By coming to Cypress View today, davka, on Tisha B’Av, I now have my own very real, very specific event to hook onto the collective nature of the day. Something painfully close to cry over. Something much more immediate.

Taken in this light, it seems the sages may have been on the right track after all when they broadened the symbolism of the day. For what has Tisha B’Av been for these past 2000 years? Truly, it’s the only day we have for national Jewish solidarity with victims of terror and baseless hatred. Victims like Marla. And countless others before her.

In recent years, I’ve considered not fasting on Tisha B’Av.

No more.

Here in the mausoleum with the naked Greek statues and the lonely rock from Israel, with loved ones by my side and the name Miriam Hannah Bat Moshe v’Yaffa staring out at me from a smooth silky wall, things look very different.

This year and every year to come, I’ll be fasting.

For Marla.

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Drop Zone

It is a hazy Sunday in Los Angeles and we are dropping off our eleven-year-old son Amir for his first overnight camping experience: a month at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA. We have come all the way from Israel for this, only amplifying the anticipation.

As we pull into the designated drop zone – the parking lot of Valley Beth Shalom - I am suddenly overrun by memories of my own sojourns at summer camp.

Except that this time I'm on the other side.

It’s been thirty something years ago since I attended El Rancho Navarro, a funky non-denominational Jewish camp just outside of Boonville, most notably known at the time as being the Northern California headquarters for the Moonies.

I think we shared a tennis court.

Moonies notwithstanding, it seems like nothing has changed since then.

There are the campers - some noticeably nervous, others greeting old friends with all that pre-teen bravado I’ve lost track of over the years.

And there are their parents, treading the unenviable line between already-missing-you and halleluiah - a whole month without the kid!

There are the sleeping bags and the oversized duffle bags, no doubt stuffed with a month’s supply of Cutter's, the requisite metal canteen and fourteen pairs of underwear and socks, each of which has been painstakingly labeled with the camper’s name (a process that causes no end of embarrassment for the child the other eleven months of the year).

About the only thing that's out of synch with my memories are the cars the campers came in. As I look out over the parking lot, I am confronted by a sea of mini-vans and SUVs, each more ritzy than the next.

I see Beemers, Acuras, and Lexi (the plural of Lexus I suppose), in shapes and sizes my parents' generation would have ascribed to nothing short of a future built by George Jetson and the Spacely Space Sprocket Corporation.

We, on the other hand, have arrived in the 1988 Chrysler LeBaron station wagon with faux wood paneling my wife Jody’s parents keep for us to use during our annual visits to the “old country.”

"Park it in the back, away from the A-List cars," I whisper to Jody as we scope out the scene.

It’s not just the cars. Things really do seem different from the parents’ side. It started months before when the forms arrived bearing Serious and Important Instructions. Did my own parents receive similar directions?

For example:

"Do not send clothing that advertises alcoholic beverages or drugs or that expresses racist or exist opinions."

Well, I guess my circa-1972 Nixon-on-the-toilet t-shirt probably would have been banned.

"Please do not send lounge chairs with your children."

Since when do campers bring furniture?

"Campers may not have cellular phones at camp."

My kids don't even have cellular phones at home.

"Do not bring weapons, pocket knives, water guns, valuables, walkmen, discmen, boom boxes, game boys, laptops, or beepers."

Hey, how about my Johnny Quest secret decoder ring?

And then there was my favorite:

"Please do not attempt to smuggle food for your camper into the camp. Although comic at times, our staff has seen a variety of creative attempts by friends and family to sneak food into the camp including sewing candy into stuffed animals."

And no nail files hidden in the Boston Creme pie either, you hear!

I can only imagine how an Israeli summer camp would present its version of the rules. Something more like “yalla, leave your uzis at home and bring a bottle of water. Chevre, we’re going on tiyul!”

Still, I am impressed by the thought and effort that goes into ensuring our children have a safe and unforgettable all-American summer. Without getting too sappy, it really does give me a more inside appreciation for the efforts my own parents made in getting me prepared for summer camp. That we have come all the way back from Israel to California, to where it all started for me, only emphasizes the connection.

Here at the drop zone, though, I am more concerned about a much more immediate subject: the girls. Tell me now, were they really that scantily clad when I was eleven? Maybe it's not such a good idea to let Amir run wild for a month without us…

But he has already made a friend and is ready to board.

"So soon?" I ask, but he's already heading up the steps.

"Wait - picture time!"

"Abba..." he protests.

And then, in the blink of a shutter, he is ensconced in the bowels of the bus.

"It's time to go," Jody says.

Yes, time to let that eleven-year-old man-child get started with the time of his life.

And time to...embarrass him one last time!

I run around the side of the bus looking for him through the window. I catch his eye for a moment and wave garishly. It's every camper's ultimate nightmare - the overly demonstrative parent…in front of the scantily clad girls.

And then I see it. The faint wave of his hand. And a wisp of a smile.

Now we can go.